It’s not always easy to talk, but sometimes you have to try. Picture this: your brother is dying in a hospice, and you’ve come all the way to the city to see him – something you’ve perhaps resisted for a while – and all you want to do is cheer him up, be a little silly and light-hearted. In Lorrie Moore’s new novel, her fourth, Finn is a high-school history teacher living in Illinois, and Max is lying in a bed in the Bronx not quite sure where he is, though he knows he’s on the way out. Finn has been trying to figure out what on earth he’s going to say. Maybe he could tell ‘anecdotes that were amusing’ – but not too amusing, because it would be wrong to ‘make the dying laugh in a way that made them want more of life. The dying should laugh wearily in a way that said, OK. OK. Enough.’ So he begins with ‘the longest sentence he could think of’, just to keep talking: a meandering reminiscence of their father’s meandering, since their father was one of those men who tells you which road he drove to get here, and what the weather was like along the way, and how he used to take a totally different road, but construction work had foiled his plans. The trick is to talk without saying anything, because there’s so much you could say, but anything you do say will be inadequate, or too sad, or too real, and not the lie you both want to hear.
Moore isn’t known for being a talker in person, but her characters are full of it. Jokes, snappy comebacks, rapid-fire repartee: sometimes just for the fun of it, sometimes to cover for difficult feelings. The jokes can be great, or they can be groan-out-loud. Take this one, from ‘How to Be an Other Woman’, the first story in Moore’s first book, Self-Help (1985), in which Charlene is having an affair with a married man. He rings her while she’s at work:
‘Hi, this is Attila,’ he says in a false deep voice when you pick up your office phone.
Giggle. Like an idiot. Say: ‘Oh. Hi, Hun.’
It’s the sort of practised gag that takes two: set-up, punchline, a bit of couple-y roleplay. In this relationship, the guy – a systems analyst – is the straight man and Charlene is the funny one. But there’s a reason she’s so quick to make light of things. ‘I suffer indignities at your hands,’ she tells him. ‘And agonies of duh feet. I don’t know why I joke. I hurt.’ There’s a lot of hurting in Moore’s stories – and cancer, and dead babies – but there’s also a lot of trying to feel better about it. You can read the books and have a very good time.
In I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home, Finn’s brother isn’t the only person who is death-adjacent. There is also his girlfriend or ex-girlfriend, Lily, who spent a long time thinking about killing herself, and has now finally done the job. But death isn’t enough to stop them talking. When he learns what Lily has done, Finn leaves Max’s bedside to drive back to the Midwest, where Lily – as per her request – has been buried in a ‘green cemetery’: no gravestones, no markers, no rupture of the trees or landscape, with the bodies just becoming part of the earth. When Finn reaches the spot, ‘there was some rustling of leaves behind him. He heard a voice say: “I was hoping you’d get here soon.”’ Lily is still wearing her shroud, her mouth full of dirt, larvae clinging to her cheek, ‘her skin pale as tallow, her eyes gold as chicken fat’. And although Finn hasn’t seen her in almost a year – they often lived apart, and she’d been seeing a man called Jack – they immediately fall into talking as they always did, with their own familiar banter. ‘Did you know that flange means “undesirable vagina”?’ Lily asks. ‘I’ve missed you,’ Finn says.
Finn decides they should go on a road trip, and – slightly wobbly though she is, being dead – manoeuvres Lily into his car. Five minutes later she says, as everyone does, ‘Are we there yet?’
‘Tomorrow,’ he said. ‘We’ll be there tomorrow.’
‘Hmmmmm. Have you ever noticed how weird the word tomorrow is?’
‘As a concept?’
‘No, as a concept it’s fantastic. I mean the look of it as a word on the page. It’s like a word from some strange made-up language. Part Italian. Part Apache. Do you still have satellite radio?’
‘First you’re dead and now you want satellite radio?’
Cute! They know each other so well, and each other’s lines so well, that their talk is like the best kind of comedy show – some of it rehearsed to precision, some of it improv. Lily mentions a ‘strange made-up language’: well, their own language is made up too – private to them, something they’ve fallen into over the years. Making it up is a game they still play: how do you define tomorrow? Flange? They enjoy the way things sound. They use non-sequitur like pros. They have catchphrases, like ‘What rueful ruse is this?’ – ‘A quote from nothing, but they both sometimes said it anyway.’ They are silly. In conversation with the recently dead Lily there is none of the awkwardness that there is with the soon to be dead Max: after all, the dead have heard it all before.
A weird thing about the dialogue in Lorrie Moore is that it’s never quite as funny as you remember. The collection that made her really famous was Birds of America, published in 1998. I must have read it not long afterwards, and it must be a coincidence – though it didn’t feel like one – that Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing began airing in 1999: the series that patented the walk-and-talk, with characters trading quips at speed as they zipped down the White House corridors. CJ, Josh, Donna, Sam: quick-thinking, smart, hilarious, kind – this was a world you wanted to be in! I wanted to be in Lorrie Moore world, too, even if her characters were stuck in middle America, usually with disappointed middle-class lives, underwhelming husbands and dysfunctional relationships with their mothers. None of that mattered – because they were witty, always having conversations I wished I was part of. But, as with rewatching a show that seemed brilliant at the time, when you reread Moore you find that the zingers are less quotable than you thought they were, or you’d misremembered them, or turned them into something else in your head. Did you really laugh out loud? Perhaps you only thought you did.
One person who is under no illusion about comedy – who may never have found it funny in the first place – is the comic. We all know the old joke about the man who goes to the doctor, depressed, and is told to see the famous clown Pagliacci perform: no cure better than laughter. ‘But doctor,’ the man says, ‘I am Pagliacci.’ Nobody is sadder than the clown. Lily, in the new novel, is designed to show it: she worked as a therapy clown, her job being ‘to try to shake people, mostly children, out of their gloom’. In the green cemetery, Finn finds that someone – perhaps to honour her vocation – has decided to bury her in her clown shoes: ‘men’s Oxfords with floppy glued-on extensions’, several sizes too big, ‘all painted apple red, the laces like candy canes’. ‘Whoa!’ Lily says, when she notices. As Finn points out, she was never not performing in some way: ‘The part of her that avoided madness dragged in aspects of showmanship instead. There had always been something fraudulent in her happiness, and then she ignited the theatricality, even in unhappiness.’ Is she a faker?
Now that I’ve come across Lily, I realise that many of Moore’s characters are self-conscious about their hilarity, or about the show they put on. Abby in ‘Which Is More than I Can Say about Some People’ isn’t a professional clown but she is a professional talker: she gives lessons in public speaking to prepare high-schoolers for their college entrance exams. She has a way with words, unlike her husband, ‘not a verbal man’, and when she leaves him she flies off to Ireland, driving through Ballylickey, Bantry, Skibbereen and Cork to see the Blarney Stone, where you can buy a T-shirt reading ‘oh gift of gab’. One story takes place during a game of Christmas charades; another is set at a Halloween fancy-dress party. ‘Vesti la giubba,’ the dead Lily says to Finn at one point, out of nowhere: the title of the tenor’s aria that closes Act I of Pagliacci. Literally, the phrase means ‘Put on your costume,’ and for the opera’s hero – a Pierrot in a commedia dell’arte troupe who has just learned that his wife is cheating on him – it means ‘The show must go on.’ For a clown, who gives the same performance night after night, no joke is ever new. ‘The clown will always repeat and repeat,’ Finn thinks. In another version of the doctor story, the famous clown is Grimaldi, who played in harlequinades on the London stage, and whose pantomime catchphrase was ‘Here we are again!’
Self-consciousness for Lily means being always aware of the genre she’s living in – or is dead in. ‘Is this a zombie movie?’ she asks Finn, who can see ‘the wiggling look of maggots in meat’ under her skin. Alternatively: ‘Is it a romcom?’ Or, given that he’s bundled her into the car for a quick getaway, it could be ‘a Western with a heist – a prison break’. Or maybe a documentary, ‘with a bit of thriller in it’. But although she doesn’t say it and the book doesn’t say it either, the genre Lily really belongs to, as far away from stand-up as can be, is romance, with a big R. Here’s how she first appears, reanimated in the green cemetery: ‘There was Lily, standing in the dead fleabane, holding a large grapefruit like a globe, her shroud draped around her.’ Like an apparition on the stage, ‘she seemed to have emerged from a mist that still swirled about her feet.’ She could be Hermione’s statue in The Winter’s Tale, or Daphne in Ovid, or perhaps Ophelia in Gertrude’s speech, found where ‘a willow grows aslant a brook,’ making her garlands of ‘crowflowers, nettles, daisies and long purples’. Lily, with her floral name and ‘loose, lavender hands’, has always – even in life – seemed to Finn like a giant apple tree, and when she re-emerges ‘she still had the proud, fabulous guesswork of a tree to match the rose-gold apple hue of her hair.’ Metamorphosis has been her constant trick: she’s such a force of nature that during their tempestuous relationship Finn has understood her as sometimes ‘turning from tree into woman’ and sometimes ‘back again the other way, woman into tree’.
If you haven’t read the novel, if an account of it is all you have to go on, you may want to ask a very basic question: is the dead Lily real? Or is she a creature of Finn’s imagination, hallucinated into existence by sadness and regret? In the novel itself, that question makes no sense. This is Romance, remember: nobody asks such questions of Hermione. Lily is real when Finn gets her into the car, and she’s real when they reach a hotel and he slips her into the bath to wash off the dirt, even though ‘sloughage rolled off her into the bathwater, forming a brown film.’ There are sly references in the book to the question that may be on your mind: ‘Maybe he was hallucinating,’ Finn thinks – but not about Lily herself, just about hearing her say ‘sorry’, something she never does. Before finding her in the cemetery, Finn has a face-off with a friend of Lily’s, who wants to tell him that he didn’t know her as well as he thought he did, that she existed for other people too. ‘Lily is not your own invention,’ Sigrid says. ‘She is not a character in a play you yourself have thought up.’
But this isn’t to say that Finn isn’t ill. He has compulsive habits: whenever an article in the New York Times annoys him, which is often, he fires off a ha-ha rebuttal, signing it ‘Melvin H from Ohio’, and waits to see if his comment is posted online. ‘In this manner he could tell, roughly, how deranged he was that day.’ In his job as a history teacher – from which he’s recently been let go – he made it his mission to reclaim the conspiracy theory from the right. He calls it Alt-Consensus History and sees it as a way of opening students’ minds: ‘Boys and girls, what are some reasons that an inexplicable event at Roswell might have been kept as a government secret? Sixty per cent of Russians think America did not land on the moon. No one in Eastern Europe thought we did. They thought it was just Cold War bullshit.’ James Earl Ray, killer of Martin Luther King Jr, obviously had help from the establishment, as did John Wilkes Booth, who did away with Lincoln. As Finn says, not everyone believes that Booth was really gunned down eleven days after the assassination in his hideout at Garrett’s farm in Virginia. Was his body ever plausibly identified? And how to explain the fact that there were repeated sightings of him over the following years, including as far afield as Bombay?
Booth is central to the novel’s tale within a tale. Interspersed with the Finn-Max-Lily story is a series of letters, perhaps dateable to the 1870s, from the proprietress of a country boarding house. What Elizabeth mostly wants to tell her sister is that she has a questionable lodger, ‘who is keen to relieve me of my spinsterhood’. The lodger – another Jack – is a handsome charmer, though with a peg leg and muttonchop whiskers which he says hide an injury he sustained as a boy. He’s an actor, and in his room upstairs he keeps a trunk full of costumes: ‘a spellbinding number of tights’ and wigs, which he ‘combs out and puts on for amusement’. He quotes poetry and Shakespeare, does excellent impersonations of the other guests and is florid in his flattery. He tells Elizabeth that she could be on the stage:
‘Why, Miss Libby, an Elizabeth should learn Elizabethan.’
‘Should she now.’
‘I do desire we be better strangers.’
He is bold.
He also reveals that he was a strong supporter of the secessionist cause, and questions the appropriateness of Elizabeth’s friendliness towards her Black housemaid, Ofelia (I feel this novel had to contain an Ophelia). This gentleman, in fact, has enough in common with the purportedly dead John Wilkes Booth – an actor from a family of actors – for it to be clear to Elizabeth that the world would be better off without him. And so the tale within the tale soon gives us another body, heading off on another journey, this time in a pony-drawn wagon driven by a man called Phinneus Bates, who plans to cart the corpse ‘from county fair to magic show to carnival to roadside circus’. A fine end for a showman.
The letters insert themselves into Finn’s narrative because on his road trip with the decaying but talkative Lily they stop off at ‘a double-verandahed something called The Jumping Rest Tourist Lodge Home, an old inn perched on a hill between the turnpike and a creek’. With Lily sleeping, Finn casts around for something to read, and finds a faded red book with handwritten pages … The big reveal! Recounted like this, in outline, the story will sound like a box of cheap tricks: a missing manuscript, which turns out to be a mirror version of the book you have in your hands. Except that’s not what Moore’s book feels like at all. She isn’t interested in dizzying mise en abyme, or in the sort of upmarket airport novel plot you find in, say, Carlos Ruiz Zafón. After discovering the letters, Finn doesn’t mention them at all: they may confirm his nutty theories about John Wilkes Booth, but does he care? The next morning he’s back in the car with Lily, and their journey rushes on to its conclusion, as if John Wilkes Booth had never been.
This makes the found text an enigma. What is it for? Elizabeth records a conversation she had with the local pastor: ‘I believe the scriptures are like crossword puzzles,’ she tells him. ‘The clues aren’t really clues, just confirmation when you figure it out some other way.’ This is a giveaway: since the first crossword didn’t appear until 1913, in the New York World, there’s no way the analogy could have entered Elizabeth’s mind. If you’re thinking this is just a mistake, that Moore doesn’t know when the crossword was invented, then consider another anachronism, which can only be deliberate. When the disagreeable lodger starts ranting about ‘the coloured and their ways’, Elizabeth responds: ‘Lest you think otherwise, there’s no cause for you to describe Ofelia to me. I think she and I have shared our lives quite a bit. Don’t attempt to stranger-splain her: she is my friend.And you leave her be.’ Stranger-splain: try finding that in an 1864 Merriam-Webster.
What this shows is that Moore can be slipperier, and weirder, than she seems. There’s a reason for this particular slippage: Elizabeth’s story, about the assassin of the president who abolished slavery, sits beside Finn’s story, which unfolds in the run-up to the election that brought us President Trump. Finn’s interest in alternative conspiracy theories swirls around the conspiracy theories – ‘Pizzagate and bullshit like that’ – which, the novel says, ruined the republic. The stories are parallel, and Moore means it to be very obvious that the novel within the novel is a way of talking about the present. It’s a bit neat, and impeccably liberal, and not a long way from the story in Bark (2014) that features a conversation between an ‘evil lobbyist’ and an academic from Chicago who supports a presidential candidate called ‘Barama’. You know whose side we’re on.
However, the book is less simple-minded than it pretends to be. The parallels may be pat, but some of the stranger echoes aren’t. Many things in this novel come in pairs, sometimes without reason: there are the two dead bodies, of course, but there are also (confusingly) two patients in the hospice called Max, and two Ghanaian brothers who work as carers. Sometimes even the pairs come in pairs: the voluble landlady of The Jumping Rest Tourist Home and Mistress Libby in an older version of the same establishment; Finn’s landlady in Navy Lake, Illinois (who has asked him to dispose of a cat litter box) and the landlady in his Chelsea Airbnb (who has asked him to dispose of and replace a glass goblet he has clumsily broken). The cat litter box and the glass goblet are both peculiarly insistent presences in Finn’s mind, since in failing to do anything about either of them he has left them rattling around in the back of his Subaru, making a bit of a clatter whenever he swings round a corner.
But that isn’t all you’ll find back there. By the time he picks up Lily, the collection of things in the Subaru includes an old orange, which he had bought in New York but hadn’t got round to eating. When he reaches the green cemetery, he slips the orange into his coat pocket as he sets off to find Lily’s burial place, which he’s been told is marked only with a grapefruit. One fruit supplants the other, but their stubborn vegetal presence is a constant, just like the stubborn presence of apple-tree Lily. In Lorrie Moore’s fiction, quiet below the crackle of the conversation, there are things that are odder, and more thingy, and not exactly translatable into words. She still has a few rabbits in her hat.
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